We’d driven for over an hour, down a dusty dirt road, deep into the wilds of western North Dakota. Looking around, it was hard to believe that this land had been settled over a century ago. With the exception of a few telephone poles and a drive-able dirt road, nothing hinted at settlement. There were no fences, no homes…only an occasional butte rose up on the horizon surrounded by rolling plains.
Finally we arrived to a crossroads. Up ahead was a solitary white building…weathered by countless years of harsh North Dakota winters. This was all that is left of the town of Alpha, the birthplace of my maternal grandfather. A lone street sign, strangely out of place, marks the name of the town. It had been twenty years since my last visit to North Dakota. So much had changed since that time. I only met my grandfather twice and the last time I saw him was that summer two decades ago. He is gone now, but throughout his life his strongest memories were of this tiny place not visible on any map. He’d been born on his parents ranch, homesteaded by them around the turn of the twentieth century. He lived many places in his life, served valiantly as a Marine in two wars, and had his family in the Deep South, but his heart never left this place. He began and ended his life here…and it was to this place we’d traveled back to find something of him.
We’d heard stories about the Alpha dance hall. Stories about how my grandfather and his sister would go there to dance and have fun. These stories were second hand from cousins who knew him well, better than I did in fact. I desperately wanted some way to connect to this man that I never really knew, hoping somehow to see something of myself in him. Visiting this dance hall in the middle of nowhere was part of that journey.
Inside, the worn wooden floors moaned from years of use and harsh conditions. Benches lined the walls…a dusty piano sat in the corner. There was no measurable sound other than the roar of the wind as it filtered through a loose screen. In the back room was what’s left of the old bar. This part of the dance hall was dark as pitch and only the flash from my camera illuminated the scene, albeit briefly. Later I would see clear round dots on the photo of this area of the hall. At the time, all I knew was that my camera stopped working permanently after taking the photo above. Ghostly spirits? I don’t know, but there was a definite sense of the past here. Standing there in the silence you could almost hear the sounds of a piano playing softly as feet scuffled across the floor and laughter rang out on some night long ago. There was warmth here yet. Memories were trapped within these walls – reminders of people who must have found relief from a harsh lifestyle for a few fleeting hours some cold night in the distant past.
Although haunted by many things in his later life, instinctively I knew why my grandfather had been happy here. Maybe it’s the lonely sound of the wind. Maybe it’s the complete freedom of the open plains. I, like my grandfather, have been many places in life, but something about this place sticks with you and never lets go. Would I want to live here? No. Will I always remember this place as a place apart from anywhere else…yes.
In that I found myself in my grandfather.